Sacred Ritual

Swami Muktananda Saraswati, Australia

Ritual is like a vast deep ocean. It is not possible to give a definitive description in this article, so this will be a glimpse of the potential of ritual, but there will still be much mystery, which is the very nature of ritual.

Ritual is interconnected with many interesting topics and beautiful arts. For example, ritual encompasses the wonderful worlds of: mantra; yantra; tattwas; poetry; prayer; mathematics; sound; music; mandala; colour; religion; indigenous cultures; art; vaastu; tantra; metaphysics; ancient cultures; mudra; animal behaviour; pooja; the natural environment; flowers and plants; philosophy; Ayurveda; crystals; genealogy; astrology; mythology; psychology; and symbology. And of course all forms of yoga, plus other topics and 'ologies'. In fact, the whole of life can be gathered up by this subject.

What is ritual?

So what is appropriately performed sacred ritual? Very simply, it is a symbolic enactment with a spiritual focus that is performed by an individual or a group of people. Ritual is a process whereby we may connect with consciousness - with spirit, through the heart, using the psychic tools of invocation, symbol, symbolic action and clear intention - sankalpa.

The invocation is an invitation to the relevant divine aspect - the deity or devas - asking them to attend and participate. A simple symbolic act is the lighting of a candle, or a jyoti, with the symbol being the flame itself - a symbol of inner illumination. A simple sankalpa is to acknowledge one's gratitude for the abundance that we receive.

Through this process of ritual we bypass the analytical mind and connect directly with consciousness via the heart. This is where communication takes place with symbol and sincerity of heart. Symbol is the nourishing food of the psyche and ritual is nourishment of the spirit. Ritual is not an intellectual activity, it is trust in the creator, it is bhakti.

Swami Niranjanananda has used the analogy of making the local phone call to God - which is the call made directly from the heart. Ritual is a method we can use to make this local call, heart-to-heart. This connection is made in another realm. Trying to analyze this process only serves to remove us from this realm, because different laws operate in these different dimensions of reality. It is the external process of ritual that sets the scene, that establishes the subtle environment for the inner process of ritual to bear the fruits of connection and transformation. This is the goal.

Tree pooja is ritual. All pooja is ritual - but ritual is more than pooja. Meditation is ritual. Our yoga sadhana is ritual; all forms of yoga are ritual. Practising mouna can be ritual. We open and close our classes and programs in the ashram with ritual. Pilgrimage is ritual. Music, dance and singing, creating art, composing music and poetry can all be ritual. Making a mala, climbing a mountain, taking a walk, even some forms of counselling or therapy can be ritual. And even cooking and eating.

All these activities have the potential to be sacred ritual, depending on attitude and awareness. In fact, our entire life could be a profound ritual if lived with awareness and respect for ourselves, for all beings and all of creation.

For centuries, indigenous cultures have gathered in ritual circles around camp fires and yajna fires to communicate with divinity and each other; to laugh; sing; dance; negotiate marriages; deal with violations of tribal law; share stories and conduct ritual. The ritual circle was associated with the idea of a protected or consecrated space, a ceremonial place where all participants were equal. Anthropologists tell us that civilization began when prehistoric people began to bury their dead. There have been many archaeological findings of ancient graves that clearly show that the deceased was buried with ritual. The bodies were not carelessly thrown into a hole in the ground, but obviously placed with reverence and provided with what were considered essential needs in the after life. No matter how grand or simply it was done - it was ritual. There are many, many types of sacred ritual, too many to mention or even to know of in one life.

Stages of ritual

The process of ritual unfolds in three stages. In a basic tree pooja, for example, the first stage is after you have settled down in front of your tree. You mentally remove yourself out of the mundane energy, and shifting into sacred space you greet your tree. In the second stage you make your offerings. In the third stage you finish your pooja in whatever respectful manner is appropriate for you to thank your tree and say goodbye.

The invocation is your greeting of the tree, acknowledging the life force within. The symbols are the water, flower, incense and flame. The symbolic actions are your offerings with these elemental symbols. The sankalpa is the heart's desire to connect with the dormant energy of the tree.

The Sat Chandi Maha Yajna at Rikhia is also a three-stage process, even though it is a large complex ritual with many smaller rituals continuously unfolding over the five days. In the first stage the deities of the entire cosmos are invoked. In fact, the whole macrocosm that is the cosmos is invoked and symbolically installed as the microcosm within the staging area of the fire ritual (the yajnashala). The second stage is the five days of symbolic action and chanting, culminating on the last day with the lighting of the fire using the traditional method of friction (ritual within ritual). The last stage is the final worship and offerings to God in the form of Mother, with the final worship and release of each aspect of the cosmos in its micro-cosmic form within the yajnashala. Followed by mantras to complete the ritual and to ask for forgiveness for any errors made during the yajna ritual. This is Sri Swami Satyananda's ritual that we witness and participate in. He usually lets us know what his sankalpa is. Generally it is for the health, well-being and prosperity of all the people of this planet.

Types of ritual

Rituals are performed for many reasons. Collectively they can be divided into five categories:

  1. The first category is to honour, give thanks, make offerings or entreat the creator or aspects of the creator. For example, any direct worship of God or aspect of God as a particular deity or guru, or any aspect of God in nature, like trees, rivers, mountains, etc.
  2. The second category is to honour and support an individual or group's transition through a traditional rite of passage. For example, birth, adolescence, death, marriage, birthdays and various initiations.
  3. The third category is to honour and support an individual or group's transition through various life changes. For example, illness, graduation, divorce, retirement, new career, the healing of trauma, milestones and achievements and various initiations.
  4. The fourth category is to honour, give thanks, make offerings, entreat the creator or to participate in the cycles of nature and the cosmos. For example, seasonal changes, full moons, solstices, planting and harvest time.
  5. The fifth category is to celebrate traditional festivals and special days. For example, Diwali, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Mother's Day.

When ritual is conducted appropriately - with awareness - it can become a psychic technology for the transformation of personal consciousness. It can provide a positive and safe environment for deep archetypal symbols or disturbances that are in need of expression. Ritual helps us deal more constructively with sudden or traumatic events. It offers the opportunity to relieve tension from which words alone can no longer release us. It is a tool for developing courage, acceptance, contentment and self-respect. And it can help us to realize our inner strength and creative ability. Ritual is aimed at increasing awareness, and awareness of the existence of the reality beyond the mundane world is one of the keys to transformation. Ritual can shake a person free from the rigidity of ego that wants to limit our experience and expansion. Ritual then becomes a process of purification, of body, mind and psyche, clearing away the debris of old negative patterns and impressions. In the form of yajna, the fire ritual, it is also a process of environmental purification, destroying atmospheric pollutants.

Ritual and nature

With the aid of ritual we learn to respect and nurture the natural environment, and with awareness, sensitivity and patience, we can also learn to communicate with nature. Here is a quote from Sun Bear, a Native American: "During the time of Earth changes, a large part of stretching our consciousness will be learning to listen to Spirit again. It will be learning to listen to the Earth. She is talking all the time, but humans have become deaf to her voice. In times past, all people knew they had a responsibility to the Earth and all other beings upon her. They recognized the circle of life. They were aware of the gifts nature gave them. And they knew that by praying, doing ritual, they could give back some of their energy to the plants, animals and waters. When we do ritual we are giving back to the earth and creation, we are saying thanks. This helps keep the life-energy circulating upon the planet in a good way; it helps keep the balance."

The natural cycle of all life, of all creation, is a succession of change and transformation. By tuning into these cycles through ritual we can attain a higher level of integration between ourselves (head, heart, hands) and the world in which we live. We can attain a higher state of balance and harmony between our inner and outer environments. The universe is conceived of as the macrocosm and the human entity as the microcosm. Everything existing in the macrocosm has its counterpart in the microcosm - its reflection. So all the presiding deities and energies of the cosmos are also present within the human body. When we perform ritual, the devas - the elemental beings that reside in the area -respond to the invocation and contribute their energy to the ritual. Equally the devas of the human microcosm also respond, uniting in their offering.

The rhythms of the cosmos such as the lunar and planetary cycles and seasons all have a subtle effect on us. These cycles can be expressed and integrated into our life's process through ritual, helping us to maintain a conscious awareness of the laws of nature, intensifying our understanding and participation in the rhythms of the universe.

Ritual is an opportunity to step out of the mundane and renew ourselves, remembering that all life is interconnected and sacred. The people of the vedic civilization also understood this interconnection - the Oneness of all life. They expressed this unity through ritual, appealing to the benevolence of the deities. This civilization understood the need for attune-ment between one's inner self and the external world in order to achieve spiritual, emotional and psychological balance. They used ritual as the means to attain this harmony.

The ultimate purpose of ritual is personal empowerment, remembering who we truly are and connecting with our own divine nature, firmly grounding ourselves in this divinity. From this stability we are more able to accept whatever life - karma, dharma, samskaras - offers toward our spiritual evolution, while maintaining balance and harmony - equipoise.

Society and ritual

Only a few cultures have managed to hold on to their life affirming rituals. Many cultures have lost them in the pursuit of industrialization. Losing this opportunity for spiritual expression and renewal has resulted in a psychological void in society, resulting in all manner of disorder and imbalance. A major example of this is the loss of appropriate adolescent rites. These are the rituals that help young people as they move into adulthood with the support, guidance and wisdom of the community elders. These rituals are designed to challenge fears and to accept and integrate adult responsibilities and rights. Without these vital community based rituals, many young people try to initiate themselves into adulthood. They do this with alcohol, drugs, gangs and other dangerous activities. But many young people do not survive their self-imposed or peer-imposed initiation rites. Youth suicide is also a major concern in many countries.

But today there is a new awareness emerging in the world and many people are turning to the rituals of the ancestors for help. They are working with ritual to unite families and communities to help them function with a healthy, balanced harmonious attitude to life and to bring a sense of spirituality into their lives in a meaningful expression of the sacred. They are looking to establish regular Sacred Place and Sacred Time. Here they can honour and support each other and allow spiritual expression to unfold, which will energize, rejuvenate and reconnect them with Nature and the Divine, bringing peace and joy to their hearts.

Swami Satyananda has said that in this century, bhakti will be the foremost yoga even studied as a science.

Sacred devotional ritual will definitely be a contributing factor to this new science.